The Washington state Senate has approved House Bill 1209, legislation that will expand the state’s Good Samaritan law, giving nonmedical emergency volunteers immunity from civil liability. According to state Rep. Dan Bronoske (D-Lakewood), who introduced the bill, the measure will address an issue that “is always held up as a concern in people looking to volunteer,” and will encourage Washingtonians to serve their communities.

The state of Washington already has qualified immunity legislation on the books, known as the “Good Samaritan law.” Under this law, those covered are exempt from civil liability for negligent actions taken while providing volunteer medical assistance during an emergency or disaster. For example, a first aid volunteer who performs cardiopulmonary resuscitation to the victim of a car accident cannot be sued after the event if the victim alleges that they acted negligently. Versions of the Good Samaritan law exist in every state and the District of Columbia.

The Good Samaritan law as it currently exists has one glaring omission: Nonmedical volunteers are not covered, and, therefore, risk being sued every time they stand up to help their neighbors. Recent emergencies in Washington state, particularly wildfires, have shown how important nonmedical volunteers, such as volunteer firefighters, are when it comes to keeping Washingtonians safe.

“Say a flood is approaching and the only way to help you escape is to break down a door or windows; response teams [should] be able to take that emergency step without fear of personal liability,” Bronoske said in an email in support of the bill.

Bronoske is backed by community emergency response teams and other volunteer engagement groups. During a meeting of the Senate Law and Justice Committee on March 22, Cindi Barker, a representative of the Seattle Emergency Communications Hub, told senators that Bronoske’s bill would “now allow people to contribute their skills and knowledge in response to disasters.” She called many ordinary people’s desires to volunteer during emergencies “a natural reaction that should be supported.” 

Like the existing Good Samaritan law, HB 1209 makes an exception for volunteers whose actions amount to gross negligence, wanton misconduct or willful misconduct. In the language of the bill, gross negligence is “failure to make slight care,” a higher standard than ordinary negligence. Wanton misconduct occurs when the volunteer acts in a way that “recklessly disregards” the risk they might be putting a person in, while willful misconduct involves intentionally creating a risk of harm.

Individuals who provide assistance professionally, such as paramedics or police officers, are not covered by the law.

Lawmakers from both parties in Washington’s state Legislature supported the extension of the Good Samaritan law, and the bill passed by both chambers unanimously. It passed the House on March 3 and in the Senate on April 5. During discussion on the Senate floor, lawmakers praised the bill.

Sen. Jamie Pedersen (D-Seattle) said that the measure “is an important bill that will help out in emergency situations,” while Senator Mike Padden (R-Spokane Valley) said that “it just seems really fair and equitable.” HB 1209 is the first bill written by Bronoske to pass both chambers of the Legislature.

The bill has been signed by Speaker of the House Laurie Jinkins, and it will soon be sent to Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk. Inslee is expected to sign the bill as early as this week.

Washington’s legislative session is due to end on April 25.